Ruckus over Ohio driver's license photo

A Cincinnati man went to several Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles locations near his home last year in an effort to get just one to let him take his driver’s license photo wearing a pasta strainer on his head.

They didn’t, despite Richard Steve Moser III’s insistence that the colander is a religious head covering, and now a national group is fighting on his behalf.

The American Humanist Association says the BMV’s denial is discriminatory and unconstitutional, but the state agency says its policy allows people to wear religious head coverings in driver’s license photos only if they wear them in public in daily life.

“Every other religion, they’re allowed, so why shouldn’t I be?” said Moser, who said he read and enjoyed the book The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster when he was recovering last year from breaking his hips.

Moser said he has since become a follower of the faith, known as a Pastafarian, and practices the satirical religion of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The belief was born in 2005 after a man wrote a letter to the Kansas school board saying that if intelligent design would be taught, so should the idea that a flying spaghetti monster created the Earth.

The religion, which caught on especially in European countries and has thousands of members, according to scholars, has a gospel and is recognized as a religion by some government officials in other states who let adherents get their license photos taken with a strainer atop their heads.

Moser said he went from being nonreligious to becoming a believer after reading the church’s gospel, and he even started an online chapter for other Pastafarians near his home in Cincinnati. The Facebook group, which Moser started a year ago, has 178 members.

“I like the satire part and all that. There’s a lot of satire in the gospel; it’s just funny,” Moser said.

The Ohio BMV Drivers’ Manual states that head coverings aren’t permitted in photos unless “used in conjunction with a recognized religious purpose but only if usually and customarily worn whenever the person appears in public,” among other reasons, agency spokeswoman Lindsey Bohrer said in an email.

Bohrer said Pastafarians don’t meet that requirement for a religious exemption, according to the policy.

“Upon consideration of Pastafarians’ requests, the BMV has determined that there is no evidence that members of this religion usually and customarily wear the colanders whenever they appear in public, such as at work, school, job interviews, etc.,” Bohrer wrote.

Moser said that wearing a strainer isn’t a requirement of being a Pastafarian. But, he added, “if you’re a believer of the faith, you’re expected to get your driver’s license photo wearing a colander.”

Moser said he felt discriminated against when the clerks at the Cincinnati-area BMVs that he visited all denied his request. “I was told we’re not a religion,” he said.

Grant Shreve, a Baltimore-based writer and scholar who focuses on American culture and religion, studied Pastafarianism in 2017 and the search for legitimacy by some of its members.

He called it a “religion that challenges our idea of what religion is.” And although the religion started as a satire, he said, it has evolved into a genuine movement.

There are groups of believers around the world, including in Germany, New Zealand and Russia. Some have “noodle masses” and buildings where they congregate, Shreve said.

“It provides a community; there’s a sense of fun to it,” Shreve said. “It offers some of the scaffolding of traditional religion, but in the spirit of silliness and joy. I think that’s attractive to a lot of people.”

As to whether people and the government should take Pastafarians and their religion seriously, Shreve said the religion embraces the fact that the story it tells of the flying spaghetti monster is fictional. Some members probably believe the religion is a critique of mainstream faiths, Shreve said, and others might think they’re expanding society’s notion of what a religion can be.

Shreve added that people being offended or taken aback when someone such as Moser shows up at the BMV wearing a colander “says more about us than it does the Pastafarians.”

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is one of several “parody” religions, he said, although most don’t survive or even get as much notice as Pastafarians have. Discordianism, founded in the 1960s to hail Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos, was one of the first parody or “postmodern” religions, Shreve said. Its members embraced and reveled in their religion being made up, he said.

After being denied by the Ohio BMV, Moser reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Humanist Association.

Monica L. Miller, the humanist association’s legal director, said the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, which advocates for religious freedom, decided to take up Moser’s cause because it represents all matters that touch on separation of church and state.

On Oct. 8, the group sent a four-page letter to the Ohio BMV registrar on Moser’s behalf, arguing that allowing Moser to wear the colander would be a “simple and reasonable accommodation.”

Massachusetts allowed a Pastafarian woman to wear a colander in her photo in 2015, Miller said. Arizona also allows it as an approved head covering.

Miller added that she suspects that Moser was denied at the BMV because his religion isn’t mainstream.

“The BMV is not at liberty to decide which religions may be afforded this privilege and which religions may not,” Miller wrote in the letter. “To deny any person the right to afford themselves of this accommodation merely because their religion is not sufficiently well-known or understood by the BMV would be a plain violation of the First Amendment.”